Are Colleges “Failure Factories”?

Former Commissioner of Education Statistics Mark Schneider has caused a bit of a stir with a paper in which he argues that colleges are getting a free pass on a huge problem – a very high drop-out rate. Our colleges are failure factories for literally millions of students, Schneider says, and I agree.
To be sure, our statistics on college dropouts are imperfect. Students move from full to part-time status, or change schools, and sometimes get measured as drop-outs when in fact they succeed. The reality is, however, that over half of students entering four year colleges and universities do not graduate within the advertised four year curriculum, and roughly one-third do not graduate within eight years even using better measures of dropping out.
I think there are four major reasons for this. First, of course, there is a small proportion that drop out because of adverse family circumstances that force them into the full-time work force or into caring for relatives. While some claim this is an enormous problem, the vast amount of student loans available has reduced the number of students who drop out for strictly financial reasons. Second, there is more than a grain of truth to the collegiate lament that high school graduates are often ill-prepared, with mediocre qualifications in such basic areas as writing, civic knowledge and math skills. Anyone who has looked at results of the NAEP or TIMSS tests knows that Americans on average graduate from high school with at best a shoddy intellectual base.

But most of the blame should fall on the colleges themselves. In order to appear sensitive to the provision of educational opportunities for all (positive interpretation) or in an effort to snare as much tuition and state appropriation money as possible (negative interpretation), schools take many students whose prospect for success can be reliably predicted to be extremely low before matriculation on the basis on test results and high school performance.
Lastly, at many schools, undergraduates are neglected. Academic advising on most colleges is a joke. Professors are rewarded for publishing, for winning grants, once in a while even for doing a decent job of teaching, but virtually never for spending time with undergraduate students in distress who simply need an objective and knowledgeable mature person to talk to and give advice. This is less true at some community colleges and spiffy private liberal arts colleges, but it holds true at most public four year schools.
All of this, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The “failure factory” label is deserved for reasons going beyond high dropout rates. Colleges have been very successful in preventing the general public from knowing what “value added” is created by a baccalaureate degree. Did Columbia have a good year last year? Who knows? Did seniors graduate with higher levels of basic knowledge, critical learning skills, or leadership attributes than they would have had if they had simply worked those four years? Do they even understand the difference between right and wrong better than they did four years earlier?
There are disconcerting bits of information that suggest that the gains from a college education are often embarrassingly few, even though the costs are clearly rising (a subject for another day). Attempts at measuring student core knowledge of our civic institutions, history, or economy by organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni show abysmal results, with seniors performing only marginally better than freshmen. The National Assessment of Student Engagement results are often suppressed by individual schools, but national data show that students spend at best on average around 1,000 hours a year on academic pursuits—attending class, studying, writing papers, etc. That is half the work effort of their parents who are helping fund their education. It is not unusual for students to spend more hours partying than studying.
To be sure, colleges have a vocational function, and lots of competent engineers, scientists and accountants are turned out annually. And it is absolutely true that college graduates earn dramatically more on average than high school graduates, suggesting they are far more productive in the world of work. But as Charles Murray and others have shown, the cohort of college graduates on average has far more innate cognitive skills, motivation, work discipline and other desirable character traits than the cohort of high school graduates. Considering this, it is not altogether clear that from the standpoint of society, the gains from a college education on average exceed the costs, studies by university-employed economists notwithstanding.
And, increasingly, universities are not particularly good at even achieving their vocational mission. First, of course, remember the one-third to one-half of students who drop-out but who typically incur large debts. They end up only marginally more employable than before, but with battered personal finances. Second, a growing number of college graduates are taking relatively unskilled blue collar jobs, a point brought home to me recently when two workers were cutting down a diseased tree on my land, one with a eighth grade education and the second an honors graduate of Ohio University. There are over 15,000 hairdressers in the U.S. with advanced or professional degrees, and 12 percent of our mail carriers have college degrees (compared with three percent in 1970). Is it worthwhile to spend tens of thousands of dollars training students unnecessarily (from a vocational perspective)? For what purpose?
University presidents constantly complain that legislators are short-sighted, restricting state appropriations or federal research monies . State higher education appropriations are a declining proportion of most state budgets. Is this an irrational response, insufficiently investing in our nation’s future? Or, given the evidence that the “failure factories” are often very real, is it a highly rational response, reflecting a healthy skepticism on the true return in investment in higher education?


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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4 thoughts on “Are Colleges “Failure Factories”?

  1. Congress is betting the constituents are the lame ducks of course.And the concensus proves it. all one needs to do is turn on the boob tube CNN And your statement was on target! As healthcare is concerned you bet obama will muck-it-up as we can see its all about greed and power. I think we all see the big power grab and control by the government course this country is heading for. The problem is How do we stop it?.. Many feel as if a vote next year will fix the problem. I think it adds fuel to the fire not only that but I believe it is planned and controlled. Frankly speaking this will play rigth into obamas lap. he gets rid of the ones that oppose him. This is a very dangerous man he plays to win but not for America. Do you think that the democrats have no clue that they are going to be voted out? They have drones a model of themselves called republicans. All they need to do is change teams in mid streamI hate that word.Healthcare is no more than a money grab and nothing less than a power hungry dictatorship / totalitarionship. Ultamitly the micromanagement of the US. This is the avenue of the mark of the beast. The control of life from birth until death with the government making all of the decisions.

  2. Even in the odd occasions when you are pushed for time after a race and cannot afford a few minutes for autographs, then at least try to smile to the fans and thank them for their support. After all, these fans have taken time out to watch you and spent their money on buying a ticket – money which goes towards paying athletes’ appearance fees and prize money.

  3. Divide and conquer,
    An ancient war tactic.
    “There’s class warfare, all right, Mr. (Warren) Buffett said, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
    I, too, believe the USA is in throes have class war and has been so for most of the USA’s existence but from 1972 or so onwards the war has been aggressively waged by the USA’s elite class, much of corporate USA and many wealthy/powerful special-interest groups.
    One desired outcome is an oligarchy within the USA.
    The ongoing invasion of the USA by multi-millions of illegal “immigrants” assists in dividing We, the People as does the 1965 legal immigration alterations promoted by Senator Kennedy.
    A house divided can not stand.
    Life-long propaganda and indoctrination has led to a HUGE number of USA sheep-citizens to embrace political correctness. In other words, to believe and embrace what the ruling masters want the commoners to believe.

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